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Barcelona—Sagrada Familia & Parc Guell
“Sebastian!” This is a common name in Spain, so it barely registered when we heard someone calling it down a busy street in Barcelona. Besides, who would be trying to get our 7-year old son’s attention here? We kept walking. “Sebastian!” The voice was closer and seemed vaguely familiar. We stopped and scanned the faces behind us.
There, hurrying toward us with a huge smile, was Sebastian’s 2nd grade teacher from California--Mrs. Kieval. We couldn’t believe it! We knew that she would be in Barcelona this month visiting a friend, but this city is HUGE, and the odds of being on the same street at the same time were slim to none. Yet, there we were together!
After hugs all around, and animated chattering about our various experiences in this incredible city, we parted ways to continue our separate explorations. What a small world, indeed.
Today, we would be immersing ourselves in two creations by the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí: the stunning church known as “La Sagrada Familia”, and a public park called “Parc Guell.”
We had gotten an up-close view of the exterior of La Sagrada Familia three days ago on our bicycle tour through Barcelona. We were now going to experience the interior, as well as climb within the tall spires.
A short underground metro ride popped us out right beside the massive church.
The large construction cranes reflected the fact that La Sagrada Familia (“the Sacred Family”) is an ongoing project. It was started in 1882. After Gaudí’s death in 1926, the work has been continued by various architects and artisans who have tried to balance the desire to honor Gaudí’s original design with the need for revisions that reflect the changing times. The church is expected to be completed by the year 2026 and has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Much of the funds for the continuing construction come from visitors who buy tickets for the privilege of viewing the church’s interior. Ben and I gladly forked over 12 Euros each (about $15US) to enter the site. (Genevieve and Sebastian were free because they were both 10 years or younger.) We also paid extra for audio headsets that would allow us to stop at various points within the church, punch some numbers into our headset monitors, and hear details about the history or design of what was in front of us.
The ticket booth was in front of the modern section of the church, designed by Josep Subirachs and created from 1978 to 2002. This side is called the “Passion” façade and has scenes full of angular figures that depict the suffering of Jesus.
The giant doors to the church were covered with raised words from the Bible:
I had heard that the inside of the church was “spectacular”, but I was still not prepared for the sense that I had stepped inside an organic, living being.
The interior support beams resembled tall ribs that stretched upwards to a ceiling sculpted with flowers.
Through the beams, and past a spiral staircase that looked like a swirling backbone, we could see magnificent stained glass windows:
The colors of the glass ranged from a fiery red on the bottom to a cool blue on top.
Here is a view of the exterior of one of the windows:
Instead of the hushed sounds normally found inside churches, there was loud grinding and thumping from construction workers and their machinery.
I wonder if those workers are comfortable with being “on stage” every day, with hundreds of tourists snapping their photos and watching their every movement.
Here is another spiral stairway:
Genevieve took a rest, listening to her audio guide, while Sebastian enjoyed his own free-wheeling thoughts and impressions (no "tours" for him today!).
Off to the side, near the back of the church, was an exhibit area that drew connections between Gaudí’s designs for the church and his studies of nature. For example, Gaudí was fascinated with planoids, which are curved surfaces generated by the movement of straight lines. He studied the geometry found in nature, and applied this geometry in his architectural designs. Here is a rooftop model:
Gaudí also was intrigued by the buds of the cereals and grasses that grew near the church. He integrated enlarged sculptures of these plant tips into his design for railings and spires on La Sagrada Familia.
Later, we would get a close-up look at some of those buds when we were up in one of the towers:
Another exhibit in the display area showed how the lines of a cylinder can change if one end is rotated:
After browsing through all of the exhibits, we exited out the back of the church, where we were (once again) completely awe-struck by the interplay of all of the organic elements on this side.
While the harsh, geometric designs on the other side had been impressive, I felt an immediate emotional connection to the more fluid, almost oozing, features on this side, called the “Nativity” façade.
This side is not all flowers and sweetness, however, as evidenced by the sculpture of the Roman soldier clutching a baby in the air, with dead children at his feet and a mother grasping his arm in a desperate plea:
While I stood their mesmerized, I noticed a large truck emerging from the church, eeking its way through the opening.
I found myself holding my breath while watching—it was a tight fit!
Whew! The truck driver successfully maneuvered his way out.
But the huge scrapes and gouges on the sides of the opening indicated that other drivers had not been so skilled:
On the other side of the church (the “Passion” façade) there had been a very loooonnng line of people waiting to take an elevator up inside the new towers. Ben’s sister Polly had visited La Sagrada Familia several days ago and had told us a “secret”—on the other side of the church (the “Natavity” façade), there was almost no line for the elevators going up into the older towers. Thank you, Polly!!! We quickly found the small line of about 10 people, and soon found ourselves zooming upwards.
The elevator deposited us far up into the spires. We had an amazing view out over Barcelona:
We walked out onto the small bridge that connected the two middle towers—shown in this photo below:
Sebastian, on the bridge:
Looming above us was this beautiful spire:
Gaudí’s “Tree of Life” was directly in front of us—a cypress tree with nesting doves:
From our vantage point, we looked out over the roof area, where construction work was in full bloom:
Then came the exciting task of winding our way down to the ground inside of the spires. My emotions were running high. To be up among the magnificent towers of La Sagrada Familia was a heart-yammering, “pinch me, is this really happening” experience.
Sebastian and Genevieve started down:
The inside wall had “peek-a-boo” openings that allowed us to look down into the bottom of the tower:
Ben snapped a photo of the kids and I from across the deep hole:
We continued downward through a skinnier staircase. Ben and the kids:
The small hole in the center of the stairwell left the children wondering whether a person could slip into the hole and fall all of the way to the bottom if they kept their body perfectly straight with arms pressed tightly to their sides. They ultimately concluded that this would indeed be possible, and I am grateful that they didn’t try to test out their hypothesis.
The spiral hole:
We were surprised to see so many layers of graffiti on the stairwell walls of La Sagrada Familia—is nothing truly “sacred”?
A network of scaffolding surrounded us:
We transitioned to another staircase that had a huge open area in the center:
We were still pretty high in the air:
We stopped at occasional nooks to admire the views all around. Here I am with Genevieve and Sebastian:
Back on the ground, we entered the small underground museum, which contained displays related to the church’s design and construction over the years.
One drawing showed how the church is supposed to look when it is eventually completed, with an additional ten towers including a central one that dwarfed the existing eight spires.
Through an interior window, we could see designers creating a small maquette of some aspect of the church:
Nearby, protected from inquisitive fingers by a large plexiglass box, was a model of the church’s interior:
Some people feel that the church’s state of incompletion is the primary attraction for the several million tourists who visit each year. However, I was completely awed by the finished aspects of the church; I could do without the scaffolding and cranes. I’ll definitely plan on returning in twenty years to see the completed version.
For lunch, we found a vegetarian restaurant a few blocks west of La Rambla, called L’hortet.
It was one of those accidental finds—stumbling upon a wonderful place while searching in vain for a café recommended in our guidebook.
After lunch, we set out for Parc Guell—a park designed by Gaudí in the northern part of Barcelona.
Waiting for the bus at Plaza Catalunya:
Our crowded bus passed another of Gaudí’s creations, an apartment complex called “La Padrera” (the Quarry) that was completed in 1912:
Parc Guell is a free public park straight out of fantasy land.
One of the main attractions that draws both locals and visitors alike is the vast terrace with its colorful serpentine bench.
Sebastian and Genevieve were fascinated with all of the different pieces of tile that had been used in the creation of this bench:
Under the terrace was another open space, held up with a multitude of pillars.
As we zig zagged through the pillars, a young man began singing opera—he was quite good!
The magical ambiance of the park, combined with the columns and opera, almost made us feel like we were in Italy!
Genevieve and Sebastian ran through the columns, playing hide-and-seek and other games:
In front of the columns were some stairs, leading down past colorful tiled sculptures. Here is a view looking back up the stairs:
Near the main entrance to the park were two buildings with checkerboard tiled rooftops, stone facades, spires, and enough whimsical features to make them look like they were plucked out of a fairy tale:
Parc Guell had lots of “secret hiding places” that called to the children. Here is one at the base of the stairs leading to the columns:
Sebastian and his cousin Maddie found the cave-like interior to be the perfect place for a hand-clapping game called "double double this this":
To the left of the terrace was a sloped space decorated with stones and containing small holes that were the perfect size for Genevieve and Sebastian to sit in:
One of the supporting columns for that space had a stone woman carrying a basket on her head:
Parc Guell had so much creative detail that we could probably visit 100 times and discover something new each time.
Above the terrace, were some hiking trails that led up the mountain to some terrific views over the city. Here are Sebastian and Genevieve with their cousin Marshall:
Sebastian found a spot that overlooked the distant towers of La Sagrada Familia:
The main reason for our visit to Parc Guell was a family picnic that had been arranged by Ben’s dad and step-mom. We arrived at the picnic area to find a fabulous spread of cheeses, meat, bread, fruit, wine and other treats. Here is the whole gang together:
Near our picnic area was the house that Gaudí lived in from 1906 until his death in 1926. The charming pink home, which he didn’t design, is now a museum about his life and works.
One last view of Parc Guell:
We opted to take the underground metro, instead of the bus, back to the hotel. The metro was a bit of a hike, first going uphill through the park and then down a long street that had a series of escalators.
We had really enjoyed experiencing some of Gaudí’s famous creations today. Overall, the architecture throughout Barcelona appeared to have a lightheartedness that we had not found in any other city during our travels. Barcelona architects do not seem to be afraid to inject artistic creativity into their buildings. Perhaps Gaudí was a role model with his original designs and unique perspectives. During his lifetime, however, he had many critics who hated his work.
On a sad note, Gaudí died at the age of 74 after being run over by a tram. It was not the direct impact that killed him, but the fact that no one came to help him as he lay injured on the ground. He was dressed very poorly, and did not have any money on him, so people did not want to take him to the hospital because they thought he was a vagabond who could not pay for any services. Gaudí was eventually taken to what was known as a poor person’s hospital. He was not recognized until the next day when some friends found him there. He refused their requests to move him to a better hospital, saying that he belonged with the poor, and he died three days later. He is now embraced by most Barcelonans (as well as people around the world) as a brilliant and innovative artist and architect.
For his creative genius, as well as his passionate perseverence in the face of economic hardship and harsh public criticism, Gaudí undoubtedly deserves much respect and admiration. He certainly has both from me.
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